What is the Tribeca Film Festival? That is: what makes it unique? What type of festival is it? Does it have an identity, even one not as defined as Cannes or Sundance? These are questions all film fests must ask themselves, and over its 13 years Tribeca has come closer and closer to answering it. What defines it — and more importantly what makes it special — seems to be a combination of things: films with local pride, small films (mostly American) with names and, most importantly, fascinating and sometimes challenging documentaries. Once again this year, which runs from April 15 through the 26th, non-fiction triumphs over fiction, though there are a handful of narrative tales that find fresh and exciting new ways to do storytelling. Music too is becoming a key part of its identity, with at least two terrific and intimate portrayals of very different musical gods.
But there are over 100 films screening over its two weeks. We didn’t see all of them, so we can’t report on the quality of heavy-hitters like “Maggie” (the zombie drama — not horror or thriller: drama — starring Arnold Schwarzenegger) and “Grandma” (the Lily Tomlin-Jane Fonda road movie). But following is a handful we can recommend. (For showtimes, tickets and other official business, visit their site.)
‘Among the Believers’
This invasive doc opens with a young boy shouting about jihad against non-believers, but it’s the man sitting next to him that truly curdles the blood. He’s Maulana Aziz, the leader of a Pakistani mosque that preaches what others don’t: that Islam needs to take over the world, even if by force. And yet Aziz is grandfatherly: a quiet, calming, ever smiling presence. The doc that earned his trust walks a fine line, showing him as a more complex, even haunted figure — he lost a son to martyrdom, which he encouraged but visibly regrets — even as it doesn’t hide the danger he encourages. It’s the kind of film that’s actually useful in the debate about terrorism; Aziz, and those he readies, aren’t evil but misdirected, and through that tact we can come to understand not only them but what turned them into what they are.
‘As I Am’
The late DJ AM, aka Adam Michael Goldstein, was one of the first DJs to become a name, first with his skills, later with his skills combined with his habit of dating tabloid celebrities (like Nicole Richie). The official doc on his life makes sure you see him more as an artist, and also as a person who struggled with drug addiction. Goldstein was someone who turned DJing into a true musical skill; not only could he mix and match and scratch, but he also popularized the short spin, playing only portions of songs before connecting them to another, then another, etc. The quicksilver speed with which he switched songs was as impressive as a boffo guitar solo. His personal demons are handled with the right amount of empathy, never playing the blame game but understanding that once it hooks into someone drug addiction never, ever lets go, even in remission.